A bunch of years ago I worked on a research project for a major auto manufacturer. It was a simple survey around what people wanted in a new car. One of the questions read: “Would you like a full-size spare tire in place of the smaller “temporary” tire currently included with most cars?”
Would you believe that over 90% of respondents said “yes”?
So a huge ad campaign was built around ‘full sized spare tire!’ And for some reason, even though there was so much positivity in the research, the campaign failed to move the sales needle at all. The whole thing turned out to be a massive waste of money.
What the Hell?
It was a classic view into the stark difference between what people say they want, and what they are willing to trade.
You see, in subsequent research we learned the buyers of this car (overrepresented by young, professional women) were more likely than others to just call a tow truck if they got a flat tire. Yet even though they had no plans to ever even so much as look at it they still said, “Sure, full size spare tire. Sounds great!” The dynamic, however, changes significantly when we later asked them to trade that against other features at a similar price point, such as an extra cup holder or an improved sound system. In the full matrix, a full sized spare tire fell to the very bottom of the priority list.
This happens in Gloucester a lot. Like every day. People say they want things, but when you dig deeper you find that the places they are willing to sacrifice are starkly different. You want better than average schools? Terrific. Who’s willing to spend the cash and time it takes to getting them there? You want a vibrant business community? Great. Ready to sacrifice some of our existing 20th century infrastructure for it? Nothing is free, if you want something there will be associated costs. Who pays?
More obnoxiously, there are many times when dedicated people are making trade offs, and the “We want everything for nothing” chorus starts griping. We seem to specialize in this particular archetype. “I expect Gloucester Schools to be at the top of the state rankings!” So you propose spending the money to get there and suddenly there are “Red Flags” and “Troubling Questions.” Or worse yet there is a fantasy solution not backed up by anything like research or experience. Man, we really love that one.
We’re like the asshole who keeps driving around on the donut tire. You know it’s going to fail, but it’s there so…donut tire.
You can’t have everything for nothing. And there are only so many efficiences and hacks you can make to an existing system to squeak more resources out of it. At some point, you need to start making trade-offs that you hope will get everyone to a better place.
Last week I spend a great evening with young, vibrant movers and shakers in this town, all under 40. These are exactly the people we need here to bring the energy and ideas to our city. Way, way too many of these folks essentially live in poverty so they can keep living here and making our community stronger. 30 years ago these people would have have been starting normal, middle class lives but because of the job market, housing market and oppressive educational debt they can’t along with millions of others in their age cohort.
You know what’s going to happen? The economy is going to recover, the national housing stock is going to roll over as our senior generation ages out and we’re going to lose these kids. They’re going to get a call from Cambridge or Austin or Portland or somewhere real estate looks less like Dubai, as it does here. The person on the other end of that phone is going to say, “Hey, you did great things in Gloucester. You want to come here and make a real living?”
We need to trade something. We need to keep offering them something they want, more important than a nicer car and a Qdoba. Since they’re going to start families soon they are going to need schools, they are going to need interesting things to do, they need investment in their projects and mostly they need to be listened to and included. They need to be given room to try and even to fail.
But what matters is what we’re willing to give up for it.